An explosion. A shockwave. A plume of smoke above a nearby building.
This is a scene captured by the Associated Press journalist and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov in Mariupol, Ukraine, in early 2022. Huddled in an entryway alongside his AP team, he points his camera toward the aftermath of yet another Russian airstrike.
“Where did they drop it?,” a team member asks. They soon find their answer: a maternity hospital, its wreckage spilling out wounded women and children.
So begins one of the most harrowing sequences in “20 Days in Mariupol,” a documentary directed by Chernov and consisting of footage he captured on the ground over almost three weeks in late February and early March 2022. At the time, he and his team were the only international journalists in the city.
Anchored by Chernov’s measured voice-over, the documentary charts Russia’s siege of Mariupol day by day, painting a portrait of a dying city and the civilians trapped in its ruin.
Some of the film’s most distressing images are captured in the wake of the maternity hospital blast, including a shot of a pregnant woman bleeding and clutching her abdomen as she is carried out on a stretcher. Other victims, draped in blankets, sob or grasp their children as responders usher them into emergency vehicles.
Raney Aronson-Rath, the Boston-based editor in chief and executive producer of PBS’s “Frontline,” remembers watching the maternity ward footage come out of Mariupol at the time.
“I started to notice a different sensibility in the news coverage,” she recalled on a recent video call. Chernov’s dispatches from Ukraine seemed “documentary-style,” she said, with “more depth, more immersiveness” than was typical of wartime breaking news.
“The siege wasn’t over, and he wasn’t out, and we didn’t know how much he had been able to film,” Aronson-Rath added. But she knew then that she was interested in working with Chernov on a documentary based on his footage.
“Frontline,” which has an editorial partnership with the AP, pursued the project in earnest once Chernov and his team were safely out of the city. Aronson-Rath, a producer on the film, paired Chernov with Michelle Mizner, a Boston-based editor at “Frontline,” to hone his vision and help shape his hours of footage into a film.
While combing through the tape, Mizner said, she could not help but feel Chernov’s presence in every shot. “It felt like a different way of witnessing devastation and the tragedies of war, like you were with somebody witnessing it as opposed to doing it in a voyeuristic way,” she said.
Together, Mizner and Chernov discussed different routes they could take with the film. They had long conversations in which Chernov would reflect on the nature of war, the purpose of journalism, and the complexities of human psychology. “That voice got in our head,” Mizner said, “and we wanted to actually use that to help tell the story.”
In the year after Chernov left Mariupol, he sought out survivors and maintained connections with people who had stayed behind. With some, he even filmed follow-up interviews. He and Mizner considered adding that footage to the documentary, but ultimately decided to limit the scope of the film to Chernov’s 20 days on the ground.
The result is raw and immediate. It is also challenging and sometimes disturbing. One of the prevailing themes that emerges is the loss of family, including the deaths of young children.
The film’s approach to violence required “a delicate balance,” said Chernov. “We were very careful and aware not to push the audience away, not to numb the audience.” At the same time, he added, “it was important not to sanitize the images, because that’s a very dangerous thing to do if you show war. If you sanitize your images, then it kind of becomes acceptable for people who see it. And it can’t be acceptable. It just can’t. Death of children can’t be acceptable.”
Chernov and his team received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage in Mariupol, and the images they captured have become some of the most well-known contemporary depictions of wartime. At once an expansion on that work and a recasting of their reporting in a more intimate narrative form, “20 Days in Mariupol” is poised to land with similar power.
The film’s release arrives as the world watches another war unfold, with new videos of devastation in Gaza circulating daily.
“For me, it feels like horrible deja vu,” said Chernov. “These are not the first hospitals I’ve seen being bombed. So all of this maybe is new for many people, but it’s not new for me as a reporter. For me, it feels more like a recurring nightmare.”
20 DAYS IN MARIUPOL
The “Frontline” and Associated Press documentary premieres on PBS Nov. 21 at 10 p.m. The film will also be available to stream on YouTube, “Frontline”’s website, in the PBS App, and on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel.